Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dustbowl Comfort

Desperately, Maude watched the rare clouds, ripening with their dark heads of rain. Standing at the fence line of her Nebraska farm, she pleaded with God. The wraithlike sheets of moisture folded across her neighbor’s field. A few drops spattered her thirsty boots. And that was all.

It was a death sentence. They had scooped that death from their door with brooms and shovels through all the booming, strangling dust storms of the previous years. They had drowned it with sweat and tears. But now that rain had returned to Nebraska, there still was no relief for their place.

Today was the last hope. Tomorrow, Maude and Everett would leave behind her family’s legacy; the house where her children had been born; the farm Everett’s father had carved out of the wilderness of his exile from the Old Country and of the Great Plains; the community where Maude’s father had been the original pastor. The car was already crowded with its pitiful load. The furniture would have to be left behind. Everything that wasn’t essential to starting over was too much. Maude was nearly fifty, her youngest child of high school age.

The Claudsons removed to Wyoming’s Powell Valley, where a newly-built irrigation system would make a wasteland arable. They and their grown children had taken the government’s ridiculous offer of a Dustbowl homestead in a valley where the virgin sagebrush stood higher than a man’s head.

But the Claudsons became the heart of that community cobbled together from the dry bones of Dustbowl failures. They helped to establish one of the first churches in Powell. Their little tar-paper cottage was the site of sing-alongs, hunting parties, family reunions and Bible studies. And it boasted the luxury of one of the most beautiful flower gardens in the county.

They dammed up the creek that flowed through their Wyoming place and made a pond. Every winter in the dreariest stretches, they invited the whole church – and everyone else who cared to come – to skate on the frozen pond. Everett would make up a fire on its shore, and Maude would simmer over it an enormous kettle of her homely chili and apple cider to warm their guests inside and out.

Through the generations, our family has enjoyed Great Grandmother Maude’s chili. Even in the leanest times, we can find the ingredients for this simple dish. And in the darkest days, I make her Dustbowl Chili and remind myself that death is not the end. That my forbearers learned to laugh in the face of destruction. And so will I.

Comfort food indeed!

Dustbowl Chili

4 c. dried pinto beans
Sort & rinse the beans. Cover with water. Boil for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the beans soak for 1 hr. Drain.

6 - 12 oz. tomato paste
1 lg. onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 Tbsp. chili powder
1 - 1 1/2 lbs. ground beef, browned
Add these ingredients to the beans. Cover the ingredients with water. Simmer until beans are tender (at least 3 hours). Add

1Tbsp. salt (if you add it earlier, it will prevent the beans from becoming tender)

If you are in a hurry, skip the soaking step. Put everything in a pressure pan and cook at 12 - 15 lbs pressure for about 15 minutes.

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